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Feeling un-Patriotic

Belichick's apology aside, young fans question sportsmanship

(JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)

The 17-year-old center of the football team at Boston College High School searched for the right words to sum up his feelings about accusations that the Patriots videotaped signals that Jets coaches sent to players during New England's 38-14 rout in Sunday's season opener.

In the wake of earlier critical reports - safety Rodney Harrison's use of human growth hormone, coach Bill Belichick's shoving of a photographer - it dawned on Geoff Gottbrecht that the Patriots had begun to remind him of a certain other, little-loved team.

"We used to be America's team," said Gottbrecht, as he stretched between plays at football practice yesterday. "Now, we're like the Yankees - we're the bad guys, and it seems like everyone out there hates us. That's the worst part about this."

Gottbrecht and other teammates' disappointment echoed the anger over a brewing scandal that has left coaches throughout the region struggling with how to explain the seeming violation of NFL rules to their players, many of whom grew up lionizing the Patriots.

At a press conference yesterday, Belichick issued an apology after the spying allegations, which this week sparked headlines such as the San Jose Mercury News's "Suspend Belichick, or he'll cheat again" and the Vancouver Sun's "Belichick no better than Bonds?" referring to the San Francisco Giants' slugger accused of steroid abuse.

It was not clear whether Belichick was apologizing for his actions or the furor that ensued.

"Although it remains a league matter, I want to apologize to everyone who has been affected, most of all ownership, staff, and players," Belichick said. "Following the league's decision, I will have further comment."

The coach's vague apology angered some student athletes and coaches.

"I'm really mad about this," said Tom Duffy, 18, a BC High senior who plays linebacker. "How do they go out and cheat and expect us to look up at them? They really let me down."

Billy Miller, a 17-year-old senior who plays wingback, has rooted for the Patriots all his life.

"This is what you don't want to think about happening," he said. "They shouldn't have to cheat at their level. It's just sad."

The lesson for student athletes is how cheating just once can ruin a reputation, said Phil Vaccaro, athletic director of Reading Memorial High School and chair of the sportsmanship committee of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

"I tell my kids, no matter what it is, you need to play fair," he said. "It will always come back to haunt you if you don't."

"It took the Patriots a decade to build a great reputation, and it can all come down on this," Vacarro said. "It only takes one bad judgment to ruin the reputation of your entire program. In the long run, everyone finds out everything. If you think you're getting away with something, it will be exposed, and then your reputation is gone."

Not everyone had a problem if the Patriots were spying on the sideline.

Roosevelt Robinson, head coach of Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, said all football teams expect their opponents to try to steal their signals. He said the onus should be on the teams to protect their signals.

"Everybody looks for an edge," he said. "Once you come out on the field, everything is fair game. You have to have your stuff together, so no one breaks your code. Hey, the military does it, why wouldn't you do it on another field of war?"

The problem is they violated a league rule, said Jim O'Leary, coach of St. John's Preparatory School in Danvers.

"When you break the rules, there has to be a consequence," O'Leary said. "This casts a pall over the whole team."

What should be the consequence for the Patriots?

Some fans and commentators have suggested the team be fined, lose draft picks, or suspend or fire Belichick.

Frank Deford, the veteran sportswriter and commentator on National Public Radio, said the NFL should strip the Patriots of the victory.

"I think the game was tampered with, and it should be forfeited," he said in a telephone interview. "If a game is not played by the rules, it's cheating. Cheating ain't right. Once people off the field start manipulating the game, that is as evil as someone fixing the game from the outside. There's no difference than what Belichick did and if he had a gambler throw the game. He's manipulating the game by using people who aren't the players."

Asked whether the Patriots' apparent efforts differed much from the code-breaking attempts in most baseball games, Deford said the difference was the use of the video camera.

"In baseball, it's accepted that you can steal signals, but you can't use any devices to do it," he said. "If I'm clever enough to do it from the dugout, then it's OK. I've outsmarted you. But if I have a guy sitting in centerfield with binoculars, that's not fair. . . . It has to be done without artificial assistance."

There is also the problem, he and others said, of the example set for children.

Jonathon Gates, president of the Mattapan Patriots' Pop Warner football team, said he wants better role models for his players.

"It's about character; you have to have great character," he said. "You teach kids that you don't take short cuts. To me, this was just wrong."

At BC High yesterday, as the team practiced passing and blocking, Mitch McClune said the Patriots game raises questions about how they won in the past.

"It's really disappointing," said McClune, 17, a senior who plays linebacker. "This really sets a bad example."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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